Making your SBL paper count

Making your SBL paper count November 10, 2009

This is my third year presenting at SBL in a row.  I have enjoyed my experience very much.  Here are a few pointers for those who are new to this:

– Keep your paper to the time (some moderators are rigid and will not hesitate to cut you off at the time mark, so plan wisely).  My paper is 25 minutes and I planned about 3000 words.

– Always try to have something for the audience – usually a handout of some sort, but some have offered their whole manuscript.  I used to do the latter, but it can be expensive and not advisable if there are lots of typos and things.  Its OK to keep it simple by giving your paper outline and a short bibliography.  I usually include key Greek texts I am working with for easy reference.  I also tend to put my email address on there so I can be contacted with comments, thoughts, etc…

– Scan the audience beforehand (or during another paper in your session) and get an idea of who these people are – they are present and future colleagues.  Make it a point to try and talk to some of them later about your paper.  Sometimes people are shy and they won’t ask questions during the Q & A, but they really do have something useful to tell you.  See if you can just catch someone after the session and walk them to the next session – ask them for feedback.

– Recognize that giving a paper out loud is different than writing a journal article in terms of flow and style.  Don’t list biblical passages endlessly.  Don’t read Greek text at length without some visuals to help.  Yes – I do know Greek.  But its hot and I am tired and I need some help to not daydream.  Keep quoting to a minimum (unless you are actually reviewing someone’s work), because you end up wasting a lot of words on other people’s work when a paper is a time to make a statement of your own.

– Read your paper with some variety in tone and pitch – don’t. read. monotone. and. dull. it. kills. the. interest.  You should be relatively excited about your subject matter.  When you get to the thesis statement – go ahead and be emphatic.  No one will blame you.  You’re a nerd – you’re at SBL.  Everyone else is a nerd.  At least you can be an interesting nerd.

-be accessible to non-specialists – Just presume that there is someone in the audience who came to hear your paper, but hails from a different field.  Accommodate a bit by defining (briefly) the technical terms you are using.  You don’t have to go way out of your way, but be conscious of the non-specialists.  This encourages cross-dialogue.

– Drink water during your paper.  The time it takes to pause and drink is useful to the audience to think and catch-up mentally.


– Don’t be defensive.   I say this because it is the natural temptation, especially for grad students.  Remember -you were chosen to give this paper.  For the next 5 minutes, you are the expert.  It is not your viva.

-Don’t make up an answer.  It is OK to say you don’t know.   What I try to do is, if I don’t know the answer, I am up front: I don’t know.  But, I also say, “Let me venture a guess…”.  That way you are thinking on your feet, but you admit your general ignorance.

– Give a short answer.  You only have 5 minutes.  Keep it to a minute or two.

– If there is dead silence, feel free to say out loud: “If there are no specific questions, perhaps there are some who have thoughts about my section on [XYZ] which I hope to gain some feedback on…”.  Why not direct the Q & A to your benefit?  Perhaps the chair will not like this.  I don’t know.  I have done it before with no problems.

Most of all – have fun.  The worst thing you can do is bomb.  Its not so bad.  SBL is so big, its a zoo.  And everyone thinks they are right and most people think most of everyone else is wrong.  So, it probably won’t be you against the world (though I am probably a little worried about one or two of you out there).  I got some really heavy kick back on two papers recently in the Q & A.  I was discouraged.  But later other scholars made a point of coming up to me and telling me how useful my paper was.  So, try not to take one harsh comment too seriously.

Good luck!

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